“Way back in the days when the grass was still green and the pond was still wet and the clouds were still clean … .”
So starts the tale the “Once-ler” tells in the classic Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) book The Lorax, published in 1971.
The Once-ler, who now lives a hermitic existence on the gloomy outskirts of town, saw economic opportunity when he first visited an Eden-like haven where beautiful “Truffula Trees” grew. Chopping one of the trees down, the Once-ler used it to knit his first “Thneed,” a garment that resembles a pair of furry pajamas—or as the Once-ler describes it, “a Fine-Something-That-Everyone-Needs.” As the demand for his product increases, he harvests more and more of the trees, until they’re are all gone.
While some say the book is more relevant today than ever, critics say it’s far too simplistic and doesn’t reflect the environmental message that was evidently intended. So, as we approach the book’s 50th anniversary, let’s revisit The Lorax and see if it stands the test of time.
Biggering causes barrenness
On a first read, it would be easy to blame the Once-ler for his environmental crime; but look more closely, and he may not be such a bad guy. As he states:
“I meant no harm. I most truly did not. But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got. I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads. I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads of the Thneeds I shipped out.”
The story soon turns darker. Out of the stump of the first tree that was cut down pops “the Lorax,” an old, short, brownish and mossy creature. He tells the Once-ler, “I am the Lorax who speaks for the trees.” He asks that the Once-ler consider his greed, which the logger refuses to do.
The inevitable happens. First the “Brown Bar-ba-loots,” who feed on the trees’ fruits, go hungry. Then, as the noxious fumes from the Once-ler’s factory poison the air and water, the “Swomee-Swans” and the “Humming-Fish” leave. What was once a forest paradise becomes a barren wasteland, completely devoid of life.
It’s clear that the Once-ler now regrets the devastating impact his actions have had on the area. The Truffula forest that before had been filled with pristine fauna and flora could be analogous for any number of biodiverse regions of the world that are currently being threatened by development. What Dr. Seuss called Truffula Trees could be stand-ins for the forests of Borneo, where illegal logging and rapid expansion of oil palm tree plantations are destroying crucial habitat for critically endangered orangutans. With the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act now under attack, as well, it would seem that The Lorax’s message is all too prescient.
Stupidity leads to sales slumps
When The Lorax was first published, some people panned it for being too negative toward business and too gloomy for children. The problems depicted in the book, they said, were not caused by economic greed but by incompetent forest management and bad business practices. Why wouldn’t someone who wanted to make money off the trees replant them in order to continue to provide and sell a product that other people value? Savvy tree farmers would certainly manage their forests so that they could continue to earn profits. The Once-ler should have, too. Critics say his avarice did not destroy the trees—his stupidity did.
As for the Lorax, his failure to take into consideration the fact that people actually liked Thneeds, wanted them and were willing to pay for them—along with his inability to realize that innovation is good—certainly did not help the situation.
“The Lorax” leaves a legacy
When the Lorax finally disappears from the barren wasteland the Once-ler created, he leaves behind a small pile of rocks with one word carved into them: Unless. Over the ensuing years, the Once-ler ponders the meaning of the cryptic message. He comes to the conclusion that the wisdom the Lorax wanted to convey was: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Perhaps The Lorax didn’t garner a lot of praise or even attention 47 years ago because it was before its time. Could Dr. Seuss have somehow known what future generations would be facing, that our demand for more and more consumer goods and technological progress would have consequences—aftereffects that would deplete the Earth’s natural resources and beauty?
Today, I am encouraged by cities and nations that are phasing out plastic straws. I am heartened by the efforts of businesses to protect our public lands. I am hopeful about green industries, such as ecotourism and renewable energy, which offer opportunities for more long-term profits via sustainable development.
But what I’m less optimistic about is what the Once-ler once pondered: are we concerned enough? Do we care a whole awful lot?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,